By Derek Chartrand Wallace
The crunching football pads and clattering helmets of rivaled Titans. The rising fervor as fans leapt to their feet, cheering on their hometown heroes. Each time Calel Justice Olicia-Aramboles has entered the hallowed end zone, he has heard none of these social cues. However, this running back for the Rams would be the first to tell you that silence is not the hindrance you may have thought.
“I don’t see deafness as a block to what I can do as an athlete,” confessed Olicia-Aramboles during an interpreter-assisted Zoom video conference with The Guardsman, “I was given talent by God and I’ve had that as a gift, so I’m ready to put it all into football.”
Calel’s grandfather was a pastor, whom he cited as a big role model for helping him to understand his own faith. “Anytime I finish a touchdown or a successful tackle or block, if I have a good day, have a great run, it doesn’t matter how much I’m playing, I thank God. I thank God every day, every moment, I give up that gratitude.”
He also counted among his influences his parents. Olicia-Aramboles’ father, who was in the U.S. Army, encouraged his children to do something—so Calel and his brothers got into sports.
“I was five or six when I joined a flag football team, and that experience playing that sport, I really felt like at that moment, this is something I’m gonna be into,” he reflected. “You know, I tried different other sports. I tried my hand at those, but they weren’t as exciting. So I came back to football. At age 11 when I was playing two-hand touch, the first game that I played, I ran my first touchdown,” adding, “I was hooked from there on out.”
Among his professional football inspirations, the running back listed NFL coach Dave Atkins and players Sean Taylor, Walter Payton, and Saquon Barkley. The qualities Calel used to describe them are the same his coaches and teammates had used to describe himself: family-oriented, personable, and good to others.
Finding inspiration in both the hearing and deaf worlds, Calel internalized these positive traits, and the results left coaches and teammates unable to speak highly enough of the young man. “He’s a good player, I saw that when I went to go watch him play at the School of the Deaf,” running backs coach Ed Smith said during a phone interview. “You don’t really know people until you are around them, and he’s an even better person than he is a player. I love having him out there, working with him every day.”
Rams assistant wide receivers coach and special teams coordinator Brendan Henderson echoed this sentiment. “He’s a dream to coach, he wants to learn so much. Working with him is quite easy, you know, because he’s a ballplayer, he knows football in and out. We saw it in his high school tape.” Henderson added, “He’s a great kid, all the kids love him on the team,” and highlighted that he “loves to celebrate his teammates’ successes.”
Fellow running back Devan Walker could not have agreed more. “On his last touchdown when he ran it in, I was one of the first ones running down to congratulate him, jumping on him, super excited for him.” Walker, whom fans have kept an eye on as well, thinks that the secret to their team’s success this season was “doing all the little things. Not taking each day for granted. Taking each day in and out. Making sure you’re getting better.”
The business of “getting better” was a challenge to which Olicia-Aramboles was eager to rise. “We are unrelenting in our focus and we practice in that regard,” he elaborated. “We’re on all the time and then we’re just getting better.” Defensive lineman Dino Kahaulelio noted that “He’s studied a lot of film, and studied a lot of the paperwork that we’ve prepared for him beforehand.”
“Determination to me means you have a special gift, use that gift for the rest of your life,” Olicia-Aramboles explained. “Keep on it, keep at it, don’t give up. ‘Determination’ is my mantra.”
Crossfit proponent and a big fan of gyms, Calel kept in shape off-season with weightlifting and aerobic exercise, from running, stretching, powerlifting, and isometrics, to sauna, steam, and swimming.
“He’s into fitness,” Walker concurred, “I know that for sure because working out with him, you’ll be sore! Me and him were working out the other day and my legs are tired right now”. “Uber-competitive, he loves the competition,” coach Henderson added. “He plays his heart out and he’s fast and he’s physical and he’s willing to do what a lot of other people won’t do.” Galvanizing the team has become standard-issue for Calel as “every game he makes a big tackle on kickoff or he’s caused two forced fumbles, which are stats that we track—so he’s been an integral part of our team having success this year.”
Walker opined, “He’s making plays for himself. Nice plays.” One example was the 98-yard kick-off return he ran for a touchdown against Modesto this year. “He competed for that kickoff spot, for sure. He got his position firmly in place there by getting that first kick return back, that was the first one of the season.” Henderson agreed that “you just see him in the end zone and how fired up he is, that’s a guy that just loves the game and the competition of the game.”
The pressures of the football field have revealed this diamond in the rough to be a hidden gem— just like his comic book namesake, Kal-El from Krypton (aka Superman). Each step of this gridiron journey has brought Calel Olicia-Aramboles closer to a moving goal, even from a young age. Kindergarten through middle school, Olicia-Aramboles attended mainstream classes designed for those with hearing.
In his freshman year of high school, he joined the California School for the Deaf in Fremont. “The education being bilingual means that you are emphasizing literacy through the first language, American Sign Language, and that’s the foundation of communication in the school itself,” Calel explained. “It’s the deaf language; so all communication is through ASL.” When asked for clarification on the correct terminology, he clarified that “Deaf is fine to say in general. People prefer the word deaf, they don’t typically use ’hearing-impaired’.”
Some may perceive it as a limitation, but Olicia-Aramboles rejected that particular interpretation. “I don’t see myself as disabled, I see us all as humans,” he elaborated. “Everyone has their own uniqueness and the focus should be on what your unique gift is, not what you are lacking.”
Working with hearing coaches and teams had its initial barriers, but he was willing to use all tools at his disposal to foster open communication in those relationships. Being able to read lips and the use of a cochlear implant has given him a slight advantage, even if the device has proven troublesome with his helmet. “If I put on a skullcap it’s easier for me to have that stay in place,” he said.
A self-proclaimed “solution-based human,” Calel has utilized a network of support ready to help him achieve success. “His interpreters, they are incredible people,” coach Henderson stressed.
“They are just as much a part of the team as anybody else is, really. They are there every day, every meeting, signing everything all day long.” He lauded copiously that they “do a great job relaying the right information. It must be such a difficult job to interpret some of the football terminology and put it into hand signals.”
On the field, the other players have done their part as well. “We run our plays based on certain calls and keys,” Kahaulelio offered, “so the quarterbacks do a really good job at explaining them and what he needs to do for that particular play, they’ll help him line up as needed. When the coach calls a play out loud, the translators are standing right next to him translating his calls to Calel.”
Regardless of the sport played, hand gestures have always had a role. Olicia-Aramboles likened it to the analogy of baseball pitchers and catchers who need to have long-distance conversations between the mound and home plate. “We have a communication system that works,” Calel reiterated. “Regardless of whether you’re hearing or deaf, it can be communicated from a distance much easier than spoken language could.” He listed several scenarios, such as “Is it a run play? Is it a mesh play? Is it a screen? Is it a stretch? What are you doing? That information that can be communicated from a distance with those gestures.”
“We do hand signals, so he’s been able to fit in well with our team,” coach Smith noted. “It’s the Ram way: We’re all one team, one unit, one voice.” That voice has demanded a 5-0 winning streak, and Smith indicated that they are “looking forward to him doing more special things for us.”
One special thing Calel already did for City College was to give the Rams their own special “name sign”, which the team has performed before their home games. The team hypes each other up, the players clapping their hands to a certain fevered pace. When Calel signs “GO RAMS,” everybody joins him, finishing in a power stance before running onto the field through the iconic plume of red smoke.
When asked if he would like to see fans perform his special name sign, Olicia-Aramboles said, “It would be great to have a whole stadium signing ‘RAMS’, that would be awesome.”